While watching the sorry spectacle of education policy making in the current session of Congress, we must remember above all else the main lesson of the last 20 years in education in America: Accountability works!
The evidence behind the effectiveness of these policies is now clear and abundant. For me, of all the research that has been presented over these many years, the most convincing are the charts showing student achievement patterns on the Long Term National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Both before and after the peak of the accountability movement, student results were and have become again relatively flat. But the gains between 1999 and 2008 were significant.
For nine-year-olds: African American students advanced more than 1½ grade levels in reading and a little less than 1½ grade levels in math; Hispanic students advanced 1½ grade levels in reading and over two grade levels in math; and white students advanced about a grade level in both subjects. This means all subgroups of students advanced substantially, and, because disadvantaged students advanced the most, the achievement gap narrowed at the same time.
For 13 year-olds, all three subgroups advanced about a grade level in math, with the greater gains for African American and Hispanic students. In reading, where the results have unfortunately been flat over the long term for all students, African American students gained a grade level.
The data for students with disabilities show sizable gains as well.
One would think, in a rational world, that intelligent policy makers, looking at these charts, would quickly conclude that something good is going on, and it ought to be preserved. Even if there were problems associated with the policies, one would at least expect an approach of “mend, don’t end.”
But, amazingly, this is not the case. Educrats who have been pressed to change and improve under accountability policies never liked the pressure. So, they organized a ferocious campaign and poured millions of dollars into tarnishing and destroying the reforms.
If results mattered, the reforms would be preserved, improved, and extended. Instead, in today’s sad political environment, the reforms are deemed “much maligned,” and are in jeopardy of being tossed.
Ironically, perhaps, it is the Democrats, who count teachers and other education special interests among their strongest constituents, who are responding positively to the appeals of civil rights groups to preserve at least basic elements of accountability policies.
But, what’s with the Republicans who control the Congress? Are they insisting on real and significant parental choice? Are they standing behind their traditional position of refusing to borrow and spend on a function some believe can best be performed by the states? Are they supporting the honorable and sound conservative position from the early 2000s that accountability and choice ought to be the condition for federal dollars that are spent? No, no, and no.
Here’s the current prevailing Republican view at the federal level, and it’s one their sponsors are very proud of: Let’s continue to tax and borrow billions of dollars, ship them in large part to local bureaucrats and unions to spend without any requirement they prove results or to expand parent choice, and spout to the world that all of a sudden every child in America will now be well educated.
Even more stunning than all this is how these Republican leaders can feel so very proud of themselves as they jump into bed with the very folks who do more than virtually all others in money, organization, and nasty campaign rhetoric to taint, destroy, and defeat not only education reformers, but also Republican candidates for office at every level.
How very ironic that NEA and AFT stand poised to win their biggest political victory in 20 years — money without accountability or choice – delivered to them on a silver platter by a smiling Republican Congress.
Maybe it’s just quaint to think results should matter in the making of policy. Maybe it’s become quaint, too, even to think that common sense ought to matter in the making of policy. But as the Congress crawls back, even in the midst of a huge budget deficit, to “revenue sharing” as the model for this generation’s contribution to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I can only shake my head.
We waited seven years of an overdue reauthorization for this? I hope to wake up and find it’s all been a bad dream.